Relief agencies feel hunger pangs

Philabundance has seen demand increase more than 60 percent in the past two years, said Bill Clark, president of the hunger-relief agency.
Philabundance has seen demand increase more than 60 percent in the past two years, said Bill Clark, president of the hunger-relief agency.
Posted: November 16, 2010

THEY STARTED lining up for food before sunrise, standing in the chilly dark under Interstate 95 at Front and Tasker.

Maryann Agnes was first, arriving at 4:45 a.m. The South Philadelphia resident has a bad knee and can't stand for long, so she always brings a chair to make the nine-hour wait more bearable.

By distribution time, the line was three blocks long.

"Every little bit helps, and every little bit stretches," said Agnes, 59, explaining why she routinely waits hours for the weekly Philabundance food giveaway. "It fills in the corners."

Hunger is a growing problem in the Philadelphia region. Philabundance president Bill Clark puts it bluntly: "This is the worst situation anyone in charitable hunger work has ever seen.

"We've seen the demand increase over 60 percent in the last two years and between 25 and 40 percent in the last 12 months," said Clark, who helms the region's largest hunger-relief agency. "When you're up 25 to 40 percent, there's no mistaking it. The line is 50 feet longer."

Growing need

Hunger crosses economic lines, as well as state and county ones.

Temple University sociology professor David Elesh recently completed a study of food-stamp use in the region since 2007 and found increased use across the socioeconomic board. He found a median increase of 60 percent in affluent suburbs, 46 percent in middle-class suburbs and 48 percent in stable working communities.

"There's a lot of pain out there in the suburbs today, and the pain will continue to grow," said Elesh, who will release his findings this week.

The southern branch of the Community FoodBank of New Jersey reported that its October food distributions were up 40 percent from the same period last year, said Margie Barham, the organization's executive director. In 2009, the pantry gave out 5.7 million pounds of food, a 36 percent increase over 2008.

"In the history of this food bank, we've never distributed this much food or seen this kind of need," said Barham, whose agency covers the Jersey-shore counties and part of Burlington County.

At the agency's food pantries, she said, "we went from a busy day being 30 families to a busy day being 200 families."

Clark, of Philabundance, started noticing increased need in summer 2007, "then 2008 was worse, and 2009 was worse, and 2010 was worse and not slowing down."

Shrinking donations

The recession, of course, is one reason for the increased need. Philadelphia had an unemployment rate of 11.3 percent - about 70,700 people - in September, according to the nonprofit Philadelphia Unemployment Project.

In December 2007, when most economists say the recession began, the city's unemployment rate was 6.4 percent, or 39,500 people.

The length of the recession is also a factor, as those who were already out of work find their unemployment benefits drying up with no jobs in sight.

"Need is not totally correlated to unemployment," Clark said. "When a family suffers unemployment, they typically live off savings or families or internal resources. It's as things progressively get leaner and leaner and as they have a harder time paying the bills that they reach out to charitable help."

Even those who have kept their jobs aren't immune to the economic downturn: Many people are facing reduced work hours or new health-care co-payments.

"For every person that's unemployed, there are two people who are underemployed," Clark said.

Conversely, as the need for food grows, the number of donations is shrinking. Barham overhears former donors talking about that while waiting in line to get free food at the Community FoodBank of New Jersey.

"They'll say, 'Last year, I was bringing food, and this year I have to use the pantry,' " Barham said.

A price to pay

Philabundance has operated the "Fresh for All" program, which resembles a farmers' market with its full tables of fresh fruits and vegetables, since October 2009. About 5,000 pounds of food are distributed each week from the site under I-95 at Front and Tasker.

Most people approached while in line declined to comment.

"There's a high price to pay in self-esteem to go to a charitable organization and ask for food," Clark said. "Just because it's free doesn't mean there's no price to be paid."

Agnes, the first in line, explained that the Philabundance donations fill in the gaps in her pantry. She saved a spot in line for her daughter Theresa Misuraco, 34, who arrived with her two daughters, ages 10 and 6 months, in tow.

"Not that I'm poor, but every little bit helps," Misuraco said. "I'm bringing food to my grandmother, too, who can't wait in line all day."

One 39-year-old woman waited in line with a rolling suitcase. She declined to give her name because she didn't want her friends to know she was having a hard time. She works as a theater usher but now has longer periods where there is no work.

"Even in my doctor's office, I notice a lot of nurses aren't there anymore," the South Philadelphia resident said. "And you think nurses would be safe."

She planned to share the fruits and vegetables she got from Philabundance with her mother and grandmother.

"It really does help. It's food you don't have to buy," she said.

Over the next hour, the line moved slowly but steadily. One elderly woman collapsed because of a bad knee. An ambulance was called, and she had to leave the line.

Patricia Wyatt, 60, reluctantly shared her story. She lost her job last December. She initially resisted going to Philabundance for aid.

"My pride kept me from coming, but then I broke down," she said. "I needed the food. One day, I realized I didn't have the money to go to Pathmark or ShopRite."

Each week, she said, she sees a wide range of people waiting in the shadow of I-95 as cars roar by overhead. She realizes now there's no reason to be ashamed.

Said Wyatt, "I've met so many different people, all ages, all nationalities, all in need."

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